I just bought a farm that had been severely neglected. There are large piles of wood on the property, where fallen trees were cut up and left. What remains are large chunks that would need to be split before they could be burned. Is it better for the environment for me to burn the wood (after getting a burn permit), or to hire a tree service to come and chip it? Obviously, burning is much better for my wallet.
–Carolyn in Hopewell, New Jersey
From a strictly environmental standpoint, if your farm still has some woods, it might be best just to move the dead wood under the trees and let it rot. Dead wood has, um, gained a new lease on life, and is now celebrated as a vital engine of forest ecology. As former U.S. Forest Service chief Jack Ward Thomas said in his Dead Wood: From Forester’s Bane to Environmental Boon, “dying and dead wood provides one of the two or three greatest resources for animal species in a natural forest.”
Dead-wood aficionados seem to revere the dazzling complexity of decay as much they do live trees, and their studies of the intricate relationships of organisms in this long-neglected universe demonstrate just how crucial it is. One treatise, for example, identifies 456 species of animal life in wood and bark where decay has begun. Others delve into details like, “Germination of spores of Glomus macrocarpus (Endogonaceae) after passage through a rodent digestive tract.” Or, “Fungal-small mammal interrelationships with emphasis on Oregon coniferous forests.”
The U.S. Forest Service itself now considers, for example, a northern temperate forest with less than 5 percent woody debris to be in trouble, while a volume of 15 percent debris means it is healthy.
Now if there is no longer any forested space on the property, then I’d default to the chipper, unless that bizarre man-chipping episode in the film classic Fargo has stamped you with uncontrollable Chipper Angst. (Will the fifth edition of the psychiatrists’ Diagnostic and Statistics Manual adds this diagnosis?) The reason to grind up the wood is that at least chipped wood can be useful, whereas simply burning it releases global-warming carbon dioxide and a lot of air pollutants. Of course your tiny little burn would be totally negligible compared to the obscene excess combustion of all the coal-fired power plants and cars in our benighted world, not to mention the collateral damage of streams polluted by mines and the Gulf Coast ruined by oil slicks. But if you aspire to be a complete eco-purist, don’t torch the wood.